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"Women in Afghanistan have risked their lives to move ahead and we have to be there to support them, long into the future."
For almost two decades, Janice Eisenhauer has channelled her leadership skills and enthusiasm into helping the women of Afghanistan. As the co-founder and volunteer Executive Director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan), she has mobilized thousands of her fellow citizens in work to strengthen basic human rights in the war-torn country and raise millions of dollars for education-related projects in Afghanistan.
Born in Calgary in 1951, Janice developed an early love of the outdoors, spending weekends with her parents and two older brothers along the Bow and Highwood rivers and summer vacations with relatives in Nova Scotia.
She worked in banking administration for a decade and subsequently attended the University of Calgary, where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in Development Studies. Her honours thesis focused on the empowerment of women in Afghanistan.
Janice’s life took a dramatic turn after she read an article by journalist Sally Armstrong about the oppression of women in Afghanistan (“Veiled Threat” Homemakers Spring / Summer 1997). She was appalled that Afghan women were banned from school. “One day they were going to university; the next day they were basically locked up. So it was pure shock that really initiated my involvement in human rights,” she recalls. “And I had to ask myself, ‘but what can I do? What is my role as an individual?’”
Along with fellow university student, Carolyn Reicher, Janice cofounded CW4WAfghan in 1998. Support for the charity snowballed to include 13 chapters across Canada and more than 800 volunteer members, including relatives of soldiers who have died in Afghanistan. Taking action by reaching out to Afghan women, listening to their stories, and learning about their lives, dreams and fears, Janice and many other Canadians realized a shared passion: to fight for basic human rights for Afghan women and their families.
Donations from countless Canadians have funded hundreds of projects run by and for Afghan women, including schools, teacher training, literacy classes and libraries. The literacy classes have transformed the lives of Afghan women. “They’re learning how to read for the first time,” says Janice. “Their lives are changed because of simple basic literacy. They can count to 10 now and make change at the store. They can tell whether the sign says it’s a doctor or a pharmacy. They can help their kids with their homework.”
In collaboration with Afghan teachers, CW4WAfghan has also developed an online digital library that provides free resources in three languages, English, Dari and Pashtu. Their teacher-training program emphasizes hands-on science and active student-centred learning. To support this kind of teaching, CW4WAfghan provides participating schools with school starter kits. Each kit includes a mini library of 500 books and a small science lab containing more than 130 items such as microscopes, anatomy models and chemicals. Every year, an estimated 1,000 Afghan teachers and 60,000 school children are helped by the charity’s education programs. Janice is particularly thrilled by the success of one young Afghan woman who recently got a scholarship to attend university. CW4WAfghan began helping the girl more than a decade ago when she was in an orphanage.
For more than a decade, CW4WAfghan’s main fundraiser has involved ‘Breaking Bread’ potluck dinners held in people’s homes or community venues across Canada. Tens of thousands of Canadian donors have attended these dinners and other fundraising events over the years. Janice has also mentored CW4WAfghan’s affiliate, Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan. In 2004, Janice participated in a peace march through Kabul on International Women’s Day. And, in 2011, she travelled to the country with Canadian author Deborah Ellis, who wrote the international bestseller, The Breadwinner, about a young girl in Kabul who dresses as a boy so she can work and help feed her family. Ellis has donated all royalties from the book to CW4WAfghan, resulting in over $1.2 million for education programs.
In the past, Janice has also served international projects as a board member of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation, a coalition of voluntary sector organizations working to achieve sustainable human development.
“When Janice started this work, she had no resources except for her wisdom and her big heart,” says Armstrong, the journalist who inspired Janice to help Afghan women. “In a vintage Albertan style, she identified a problem and decided to tackle it with nothing but her own energy, her commitment to human rights and her belief in the power of people to make change.”
Janice has been described as defiantly relentless in her commitment to the idea that every woman deserves an education and dignity. She has co-authored various articles on the theme of education as a basic human right in Afghanistan. And her resilience has remained undiminished, despite the sometimes horrifying occurrences in Afghanistan, including death threats, acid burnings and killings of teachers, students and others. As one of the CW4WAfghan’s leaders in Kabul observes, “Her commitment and compassion encourages us as Afghans not to give up under any circumstances.”
She has been the recipient of numerous awards for her long-standing volunteerism, including the Alberta Centennial Medal, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and the Calgary Rotary Integrity Award. Other honours Janice has received include the Soroptimist International Make a Difference for Women Award, the World University Service of Canada Lewis Perinbam Award and the City of Calgary’s Signature Award for bringing international acclaim to the city.
Janice is under no illusion that miracles can be achieved in Afghanistan. Change is slow and “messy” in the troubled country, but the path is always clear, she explains. “Women in Afghanistan have risked their lives to move ahead and we have to be there to support them, long into the future.” Recognized as an outstanding mentor and model for effective volunteerism in Canada, Janice’s unflagging commitment to humanitarianism and social justice is a wonderful example of how one person can make a difference in the lives of so many.